As I sat in the near full Studio at the Empire a couple of nights ago, I was conscious of the fact that there were Murri audience members all around. Now, that doesn’t happen very often in Toowoomba. Why not is another question.
Why such a mixed audience was there on a cold night on a Thursday was because deBase’s production of Chasing the Lollyman was in town. The play, which had its first production in Brisbane in 2010, is currently on tour through the auspices of Artour Queensland. It was NAIDOC week and the only opportunity locals would get to see a play whose reputation has preceded it. It was, in fact, a perfect time to come together and spend an evening with Mark Sheppard one of the funniest stand-up comedians working today. Chasing the Lollyman is a very personal one-man show about identity, and grounded in the idea and power of family. Mr Sheppard’s story as a gay, Aboriginal man – a Muluridgi man from Mareeba, a small country town in far-north Queensland – unfolds over 75 minutes in a space framed by a perfectly-designed touring set – a series of poles decorated with indigenous-style motifs. They are actually boxes that contain items to accompany the stories he tells, either as symbols or costume pieces and props.
Mr Sheppard traces his background in a series of yarns, terrific contemporary-traditional dance pieces, song, and audience interaction – for once, the interaction part isn’t embarrassing. He kicks over a lot of barriers along the way, all without a trace of bitterness. He talks to us, with us – now a part of his ‘family’ – and, for me at least, gave permission to lose the guilt for a bit and laugh along with him at the really, really funny stories about his own family and the patronising liberal attitudes to indigenous Australians. Chasing the Lollyman‘s laughter and gentle approach mask generations of hurt and sadness, but they are never far from the surface, and why should they be?
I was unprepared for the powerful way the play’s humour, biting satire, and the personality of Mr Sheppard himself was able to work on us. God knows, many in the audience would have been aware of the cloud of white guilt that invariably hangs around any gathering dealing with the treatment of indigenous Australians present and past. It is a tribute to the writers (Sheppard co-devised with Liz Skitch) that these issues are never skirted but met head on. They are dealt with in that most powerful of ways – laughter. ‘Sit beside a Murri,’ he suggested at the show’s start, ‘and you’ll know when to laugh.’ Satire is deadly!
The most powerful part of the evening is reserved for the final 10 minutes where, for this very short time indeed, Mr Sheppard assumes the role of the first indigenous Prime Minister of Australia, and calls us into a collective dreaming of reconciled unity – as family. He invites us to imagine the potential this would have for every Australian. It is stunning in its theatrical power to imagine and rehearse an as-yet unfulfilled idea. You could have heard a pin drop.
Chasing the Lollyman is currently on tour throughout south-east Queensland. Check the website for details on where it is heading. If it plays in your town, see it.
It is also the second in the new Homegrown Series of independent works being produced and/or presented by the Empire Theatre Projects Company. The first was the Australian play Blackrock which played last month. Greenroom will be following and reviewing the remainder of these independent productions in the Studio Series.